NASHVILLE — Brian Daboll and Saquon Barkley locked eyes. The head coach who is new and the running back who is not. The man who arrived seven months ago to change the culture of the franchise and the player who had come to personify the hard-luck losing and despair of the past few years.
Daboll held up a hand as they gazed at each other with unblinking eyes. He held up two fingers. Barkley knew what that meant.
“I said, ‘F yeah,’ ” he said.
Moments later, Barkley caught a shovel pass from Daniel Jones and bulled his way through would-be tacklers to score the game-winning two-point conversion in a 21-20 victory over the Titans.
It was a gutsy call and a gutsy run to match, and it allowed the Giants to win the season opener for the first time since 2016.
Those yards did not count in Barkley’s stats. He didn’t need them. He ran for 164 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries and caught six passes for 30 yards.
After a summer in which he told just about everyone who would listen that he would be playing this season at full health and with a fire he had not yet stoked inside himself, Barkley delivered.
“We’ve got the best back in the league and it showed today,” wide receiver Sterling Shepard said, a statement made all the more significant considering the Giants faced the man who many thought held that title, Derrick Henry. “Nothing else needs to be said.”
Henry was limited to 82 yards on 21 carries.
Once Barkley gave the Giants the lead, it was up to the defense to hang on. The Titans drove to the Giants’ 29 after two defensive holding penalties helped them along and attempted a 47-yard field goal as time expired. Randy Bullock’s kick went wide left and the Giants poured onto the field to celebrate.
In the locker room, Barkley gave game balls to Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen to commemorate the event.
“It’s a new era,” he said.
It sure felt like one.
Daboll’s decision to go for the win after Jones hit Chris Myarick with a 1-yard touchdown pass that made it 21-20 with 1:08 remaining was not a spur-of-the-moment call. It was, in fact, something he told the team he would do at their meeting on Saturday night when they arrived in Nashville.
“He’s a man of his word,” Barkley said. “He said he would be aggressive and lean on his players, and that’s what he did.”
Just to make sure everyone was on the same page with his thinking at that point, though, Daboll gathered some of the team leaders and captains around at the start of that last offensive drive and told them that when they scored — that was a given in his mind — the Giants would play to win.
Had they not scored that two-point conversion, it likely would have been a deflating one-point loss, the kind that the Giants have been used to experiencing. Daboll would have been ridiculed for not kicking the extra point and hoping to take his chances in overtime.
“That’s what you sign up for when you are a leader,” Daboll said. “Being a leader is tough. It’s not easy. There are going to be plenty of times I fail. I understand that.”
This wasn’t one of them.
The Giants trailed 13-0 at halftime and their offense was struggling to move the ball. On the first six plays of the third quarter, though, they scored 13 points within 2:09 of possession time to tie the score.
The first drive of the second half opened with a 68-yard run by Barkley, his longest since he ran for 68 in the final game of the 2019 season. He did not reach the end zone on his long carry, but three plays later, he scored from the 4, creasing between blocks by guard Joshua Ezeudu and tackle Andrew Thomas to cut Tennessee’s lead to 13-6.
Long snapper Casey Kreiter skipped the snap on the extra-point attempt and the Giants didn’t get a chance to kick it.
After a three-and-out by the Titans, the Giants got the ball back, and this time it was Shepard’s chance to turn back the clock in his return from a ruptured Achilles.
After a rush by Barkley for minus-1 yard, Shepard slipped behind the coverage of Kristian Fulton down the left side of the field and Jones hit him for a 65-yard touchdown. This time the Giants kicked the extra point and tied it at 13.
Dontrell Hilliard’s second touchdown catch of the game gave the Titans a 20-13 edge late in the third quarter.
The Giants nearly blew it in the fourth quarter when they could not take advantage of a gift-wrapped muffed punt recovered at the Tennessee 11. Jones threw an interception in the end zone on a pass intended for Barkley on third-and-7 from the 8, and the Titans held that seven-point lead with 8:13 remaining.
The Giants got the ball back, though, and Jones converted a tough fourth-and-1 with a run outside the defense to keep the winning drive alive just after the two-minute warning. Four plays later, he hit Myarick to make it 21-20 and set up the deciding two-point play.
Everyone in the stadium and watching at home knew who would get the ball, and they were right. It wasn’t a clean play. Jones pitched the ball to Barkley and there were defenders between him and the goal line. He put his shoulder pads down, though, and plowed through them.
“Luckily,” Jones said of the tenuous moments between the pitch and the points, “when you have Saquon Barkley, it works out.”